Tha Khaek

The sleepy provincial capital of Khammuan province, Tha Khaek lies across the Mekong River from the bustling Thai town of Nakhon Phanom. While Tha Khaek is certainly not the most exciting town in Laos, it is a good deal more interesting than its cross-river neighbour, and, relatively speaking, it's the biggest, most tourist-friendly town in the province.

Tha Khaek means "Guest landing". Originally, this was a reference to the town's stature as a riverine trading outpost, but the name still holds water today. Foreign visitors continuously pour into town, crossing the Mekong by boat, and Laotians make frequent day-trips to buy goods in Nakhon Phanom. Tha Khaek is a full-on, international border crossing, and Lao visas on arrival are available crossing into Laos.

The construction effort to transform Route 12 from a dirt track to a major east-west trade corridor starts just outside of town, and Tha Khaek is already beginning to get a little bit busier in anticipation of its eventual growth, luring more and more Laotians to move into town from outlying areas. This growth, however, hasn't yet resulted in a huge influx of western tourists. Accommodation options haven't increased in recent years, and the town is visited only by a steady trickle of backpackers, the vast majority of whom stay at the Tha Khaek Travelodge.

For now, Route 12 courses along the southern edge of the Phou Hin Boun NBCA, a massive limestone forest with numerous pristine and picturesque rivers and lakes. And where there is limestone, there are caves: route 12 offers easy access to half a dozen or more, the most recent of which, Buddha Cave, was only discovered (or rather, rediscovered) in 2004. But the most remarkable cave in Phou Hin Boun is the eerie and amazing Konglor Cave -- a 7.5 km underground river that can be navigated by boat. It's inaccessible from the south, but there are good roads leading north to the village of Na Hin (also known as Kheun Kham) from which the cave can be reached on a day-trip or overnight. The road to the cave, too, is the scene of another road construction effort, and it becomes easier to navigate with every passing week.

Tha Khaek in general, and the Travelodge in particular, are increasingly becoming a staging area for the 'Konglor Cave Loop', as tourists show up here looking to take a three-to-five day motorbike journey from Tha Khaek, through Nakai and Lak Xao, to Na Hin for a trip to Konglor Cave, and then returning from the north via route 13S.

But you don't have to do it on your own anymore: there's a new tourist information centre that is conducting a pilot project to test out three new guided tours of the nearby Phou Hin Boun NBCA, all of which are worth looking into.

Further afield, the Nakai-Nam Theun NBCA along the eastern border with Vietnam is the scene of a massive public works project -- a hydro-electric dam has been built, and a 50km stretch of the Nam Theun River Valley is going to be flooded -- the inundation process is scheduled to begin in August of 2007.

Conservationists are scrambling to measure the impact the reservoir is going to have on local wildlife, and whole communities are being uprooted and moved away from the inundation zone. The park itself is off-limits to tourists at the moment, but a new road has been cut into the forest along what will be the western edge of the reservoir, from Mahaxai in Khammuan Province, to Lak Xao in Bolikhamsai.

A motorcycle journey along this road is a dusty, bumping, and demanding trek that serves as nothing so much as an object lesson in how an undeveloped country becomes industrialised. Nevertheless, the road is navigated almost daily by at least a few tourists undertaking what's becoming known as the Konglor Cave Loop -- probably one of the most interesting and unique motorcycle treks available in the region. Dirt-bikers will want to head here sooner rather than later before they pave all the roads.

For the more adventurous, travel into the remainder of the province is possible and can be especially rewarding -- rest assured you'll be the only foreigner on the truck-bus!